by Regina Ford
Finding your inner drag takes courage. Sharing your inner drag with the world takes guts and honesty and it just may set you free. That’s the jaunty moral of Matthew Lopez’s The Legend of Georgia McBride, about a young, part-time Elvis impersonator who discovers that digging deep into a female persona makes him a better man.
Young lovers, Jo (Lauren Vialva) and Casey (Dylan Cotter) are starting their life together in the Florida panhandle and money is scarce. She’s waitressing. He’s entertaining in a dive bar where he grinds and gyrates as Elvis Presley in kitschy costumes, reflections of the King’s bloated, drug-filled years before his death. But with bar patrons disappearing, bar owner Eddie (Guy Norris) changes direction and brings in his cousin Bobby (Naphtali Curry), a performance artist booked as Miss Tracy Mills. With no room for an Elvis gig, Casey is out of a job, he can’t pay rent and he and Jo discover they are going to have a baby. Ms. Mills is joined by drag artist Rexy (Jax Wujek), a campy lush whose stage name is Miss Anorexia Nervosa, a name she snarls is “Italian.” (This one-line gag poking fun at a serious eating disorder is touchy for some, especially those of us who battled this condition at one point in time. Overcoming the shame of an eating disorder is a battle of deep reflection and learning to love thyself. This painful memory may strike a sour chord with some audience members, even if Lopez may have innocently aimed for a cheap laugh.)
When Rexy is too drunk to do her Edith Piaf number, Casey reluctantly returns to the stage in falsies, padded hips and ass, and stilettos and attempts to embrace his Georgia McBride drag persona. The conflict explodes when Jo discovers Casey is lying about his new role onstage.
Casey is no doubt heterosexual in the play and the dilemma of telling Jo about his drag role seems plausible, but I struggled with how quickly the playwright allowed Casey’s character to accept doing drag so easily. The character studied drama and also dabbled in music, even writing a song for Jo, so “acting” the part of a drag queen was not unbelievable. I wanted to witness a more dramatic transition from the character’s role from Elvis to Georgia McBride. I think Lopez missed the opportunity to test the actor’s ability by not providing him with more dialogue and motivation surrounding his journey from Elvis to a drag performer. I felt cheated in the character’s development and I was left wondering how performing as a woman affected any part of Casey’s masculinity, an issue never addressed in the play.
Cotters’ Casey is dynamic though. I felt his internal empathy for his character, both as a soon-to-be father and again as Georgia McBride. His female persona was believable and sincere given how quickly he had to adapt.
Vialva took her role of Jo and turned her into a loving but frustrated partner to Casey. Her struggle to understand her partner’s decision to do drag as a profession was one of the most refreshing roles in the show. The acceptance or rejection of another’s inner spirit is addressed with empathy and in these polarizing times and Vialva made that happen.
Curry nailed the role of Tracy, and as Tina Turner he strutted in tortuous gold platforms with deadly spikes as he belted out “Proud Mary.” Lip-synching is an art in itself and the Arizona Repertory students were spot-on.
Wujek was an unabashed Rexy with believable drunken-laced stage pratfalls. I never doubted his performance. His character is the epitome of a stereotypical drag queen. I do wish the playwright showed little sympathy for the character. Although catty and always bitchy, I believed Rexy to be toxic on the surface, but a lost soul inside. His alcohol-laced rants screams help me! with no help written into the script.
Scenic designer Clare Rowe made use of a revolving set allowing for quick scene changes from Casey’s apartment and back to the bar. The set had just enough decor to give the audience the illusion of the bar’s cramped backstage dressing room and a sparse apartment that Casey and Jo call home.
The music selection during scene changes, including Neil Diamond’s hit, “Girl, You’ll be a Woman Soon,” added just enough fluff to make the audience laugh.
Co-director Patrick Holt, who also inspired the sequin, feather and fake fur-embellished costumes along with Shaelyn Ellershaw, should really know the ropes. After all, Holt was one of the stars of season seven on Ru Paul’s Drag Race and more recently named one of the most influential drag performers for New York magazine. Need I say more?
I embrace the message of acceptance in The Legend of Georgia McBride. I want to applaud the men and women who have the courage to forge deep into themselves and feel the freedom to love who they really are. No one can expect everyone to be understanding and tolerant of things they don’t understand. Ignorance and fear are powerful deterrents. As critical as the message of tolerance should be, this play only tackles the surface of the issue. Although slightly candy-coated with quick one-liners and innuendos, it’s worth starting somewhere and The Legend of Georgia McBride is a good starting point.
The Legend of Georgia McBride plays at the Tornabene Theatre at the University of Arizona through October 6th. Performances are at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays through Saturdays, and 1:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. For reservations or info, visit: theatre.arizona.edu or call 621-1162.